Strong words: two nations. The question tag in the title seems, therefore, justifiable. Is the political division of Polish society so deep that we can actually talk about two hostile groups (communities, tribes) whose value systems and ensuing sense of identity have become mutually incompatible?
Strong words, but they are nothing new. They are the title of one of the sub-sections of Norman Davies’ short history of Poland, Heart of Europe, published in the mid-1980s when the underground Solidarity movement was fighting for survival under the pressure of the military rendition of the communist regime. Davies reminded the world that ‘the first thing which Poles had to realize in recent years was that the agents of their oppression today were not weird-looking foreigners wearing a pickelhelm or a Tartar cap. The oppressors are Poles like themselves…’ (Davies 1989: 45). Davies also points out that the division was poorly embedded in the social structure, if at all. This observation has been confirmed by sociological research done at the time, including a series of year-long surveys on the Poles (Polacy ’80, ’81, ’84 etc.) conducted by a team of researchers from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Their research revealed that the political attitudes of Poles were spread along a continuum defined by two syndromes – a democratic-liberal one (the political opposition of the time) and an authoritarian-populist one (the authorities), although the majority of attitudes fell somewhere between the two extremes. The variables describing the social position of the respondents – their sex, age, education, job and place of residence – were not connected in any statistically significant way to their political views, in other words to their belonging to the regime’s opponents, its supporters, or in the ambivalent centre.
This would not be anything new, either. After the Partitions of Poland of the late 18th century, some noblemen conspired against the country’s occupiers and rushed to fight in the uprisings against them, only to die in the battlefield on the scaffold or to end up in exile. Others chose political, bureaucratic, or military careers in the partitioning powers’ structures. Sometimes, an individual would do both in his lifetime: Romuald Traugutt, a colonel in the Russian army, led an unsuccessful anti-Russian uprising in 1863-64. Some peasants denounced the insurgents to the oppressors (and even slaughtered them in Galicia in 1846), while others volunteered to serve in the insurgent units themselves. Later on, rival statesmen Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski, who held very different visions of the Polish state and the Polish nation in the period before and after regaining independence in 1918, had an equally strong following that spanned various segments of society. Unsurprisingly, under communism, some members of the intelligentsia, some blue-collar workers, and some peasants were loyal members of the party until its infamous end. Others risked their own careers and their families’ well-being to work underground, print and distribute samizdat, or simply refuse to sign declarations of loyalty.
The weak anchoring of political divisions in the social structure did not change with the fall of communism. In the 1990s, the sociopolitical scene was dominated, as the sociologist Mirosława Grabowska neatly puts it, by the post-communist division. That was not, however, a replica of the divide that existed a decade before. Here again, we talk rather about a continuum than a dichotomy.
One extremity of that continuum was firmly defined as the Pole–Catholic syndrome (religious faith, nationalism, anti-communism), while the other one was defined rather by negation of that model than by any clearly expressed positive values. A peculiar transformation occurred: the authoritarian-populist attitude that supported the regime under communism now revealed its links with anti-communism. Instead of variables describing an individual’s place in society, it was religiosity that served as the best indicator of political views. As I wrote in 2010: ‘If we want to guess how someone voted in the last elections or how will he vote in the next ones, we shouldn’t ask about his job, his education or how thick is his pocketbook, but how often he prays the rosary.’
Karl Marx, as is commonly known, said that ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ He was right, at least as far as Poland after 1989 is concerned. Economic shifts have resulted in new structures of social interests, evidenced by the new configuration of political stances and the realignments on the political stage. The post-communist division has been replaced by fresh polarization. This time it was described as a conflict between liberal and solidary Poland. Liberal Poland was characterized by an individualistic approach, support for a market economy and an openness towards Europe and the rest of the world. Solidary Poland was more about collectivist approaches (in their nationalist, not class version), support for national income redistribution through social policy and a considerable level of euro-scepticism. Politically, liberal Poland was, and still is, represented by Civic Platform (PO) and its current allies; solidary Poland by the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Both parties grew out of the Solidarity movement. The line of this division was based almost equally on ideological and structural variables. Notably, the former variables, specifically religiosity, were a better predictor of support for PiS, while the latter (education level, income) of preferences for PO.
Therefore, it seemed that political divisions in Poland had started to resemble those of the majority of post-industrial societies. On one hand, there are the consistent liberal views that characterize the middle classes of big cities, and on the other the populist and redistributive attitudes of poorer groups with lower social status. It is a Polish thing, though, that the latter gave their support not to the classic, secular left, but to the ideologically conservative PiS. This natural continuum got broken somewhere in the middle, and the polarized pluralism that had existed on the Polish political stage was replaced by a dichotomy. Though coincidental, this occurred at about the same time as many other European countries – Spain, Italy, France – were struck by major shifts that completely transformed the structure of their political systems. In those countries, this was mostly the result of Great Recession of 2008–09, but in Poland, the ‘green island’ of European economy, it was triggered by the Smolensk air crash of 2010, in which the Polish president and very many high-ranking Polish officials died.
The aftermath of the Smolensk crash divided Polish politicians; the tragedy polarised and dichotomised (i.e. practically wiped out the moderate political centre) political debate in the country. But this is not an exclusively Polish phenomenon. In a time of 24/7 news bulletins and practically limitless social media access (both for creators and recipients), the counterpart of Gresham’s law (bad money drives out good ) in the world of information kicks in: bad quality information replaces the good, sensation supplants reasonable judgement, and, eventually, lies drive out the truth. The deeper the divisions between value systems in a society, the more this process is exacerbated. In their recent book, Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart argue that divisions in the sphere of values (traditionalists’ resistance against cosmopolitan liberalism) played a more significant role in the sudden increase in support for populist-authoritarian movements than economic problems.
What are the chances of breaking this dichotomy? Social research (which has examined the current Polish political division extensively, both in quantitative and qualitative terms) suggests a strong embedding of this political division in people’s value systems. Tomasz Zarycki and his co-authors (2017) argue that in Poland it is not the cultural patterns (including patriotism and religiosity) that are reproduced from generation to generation, but rather the domination of cultural capital over economic capital. Hence the difficulties in creating a network of interests and value systems typical for post-bourgeois societies, where dialogue and compromise are the preferred ways of resolving issues.
In contrast, Piotr Radkiewicz (2017) argues that the unbreakable dichotomy is due to fundamental differences in value systems between the PiS and PO electorates at a deep psychological level. PiS is dominated by conservative communitarianism; PO, by progressive individualism. Their emanations are two visions of Polish democracy, communitarian and liberal. If, as Ben Stanley argues based on Polish General Electoral Study research, such attitudes translate into compatibility of the structures of demand (voters’ expectations) and supply (political parties’ programmes) on the electoral stage (populist PiS and liberal PO), the chances of burying the deep division look rather slim.
In a recently published book, Doktryna Polaków (The Doctrine of Poles), Zbigniew Rau and his co-authors also agree that, among Poles, two visions of social order dominate: an Aristotelian one (communitarianism) and a Hobbesian one (liberalism). They do point out, though, that in potentially significant political matters like ownership, power, or the state, Poles’ views are eclectic and lack clearly demarcated divisions. Does this give hope for the future?
The notions of a solidary and liberal Poland have practically disappeared from the public discourse. They are worth recalling, though, as the division they define reappears during every consecutive election – presidential, parliamentary, local and European. We should remember, though, that these notions are nothing more than catchy expressions, and that they cannot replace profound social analysis. On the other hand, they are accurate, as they reflect the core of this division and, above all, point to its organic nature (that is, its embeddedness in the social structure and its links to various value systems coexisting in present-day Poland). It is no coincidence that voting preferences also divide Poland geographically into the ‘liberal’ provinces of Pomorze, Warmia and Mazury, Wielkopolska, and Śląsk and the ‘solidary’ Mazowsze, Podlasie, and Małopolska; similarly, into ‘liberal’ metropolitan centres and ‘solidary’ rural areas. Those geographical divisions not only replicate the frontiers of past partitions and the border with Germany from before World War II, they also reflect prior and current migration patterns, like the resettlement of the western regions after World War II and the constant flow of migrants from rural areas to the cities. In the villages of the Podlasie and Podkarpacie regions, where small farms can hardly feed a family, but families have many generations of ancestors buried in the local cemetery, attachment to tradition is understandably strong. That graveyard with its adjacent church in which the priest preaches every Sunday are the symbols of this tradition. Interpersonal bonds in such communities represent Émile Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity – we feel connected to people who are like us.
In the villages of Wielkopolska province that were incorporated into the market economy as early as the 19th century, this mechanical solidarity was replaced years ago by organic solidarity, built on the acceptance of the fact that a peasant-farmer, in order to feed the others, needs help exchanging goods and services with the local mechanic, the merchant, the civil servant and the teacher. In such communities, religion and its symbols cease being the sole provider of a sense of security, and gradually become a private matter.
Areas previously known as Ziemie Odzyskane (Recovered or Regained Territories – former German territories, mainly along the western and northern borders, that Poland received after World War II) retained small local minorities and were predominantly populated by Poles relocated here from other regions. These settlers, although mostly of the same denomination, brought different traditions, various interpretations of symbols and a broad range of rituals. Such diversity generated – to go back to Durkheim – anomie (a loss of norms and values) which, in turn, made people who were deprived of the armour of tradition open to ideological novelties from communism to liberalism. (We must not forget that, in the historic elections of 1989, Solidarity did much worse in the western part of Poland, except for Wrocław and Gdańsk, than in the rest of the country.)
Similar effects were brought by post-war and post-communist migrations to large cities and industrial centres throughout the country. In effect, ‘liberal’ Warsaw votes for PO candidates while the ‘solidary’ villages of the surrounding province, Mazowsze, vote for PiS. The same goes for ‘liberal’ Kraków and the ‘solidary’ highlanders from the Nowy Sącz and Limanowa hinterlands. Even among the inhabitants of Kielce (nicknamed Clergytown by the writer Stefan Żeromski), the ‘liberals’ usually win, while in the region’s smaller towns and villages victory belongs to the ‘solidary’ population.
And yet, these geographic divisions, both regional and urban versus rural, do not tell the whole truth. There is no province, city, town, or district in which one candidate or one party gets all the votes.
Liberal and solidary Poland coexist in every community. Divisions that seem sharp when we watch heated disputes of politicians on TV, or street fights between ‘fascists’ and ‘anarchists’, or when we read about the next political provocation, fade away when we return to everyday activities. We are no longer interested if or how our mechanic voted in the last elections, but whether he can repair our car (and how much it will cost us).
Also, the division between liberal and solidary Poland could run across our souls (Davies wrote about it already in the 1980s). The vast majority of us want prosperity and freedom, these being the knock-on effects of the modernization process that was part of the vision of a liberal Poland. An equally vast majority finds comfort and a sense of security in the world of traditional values, which are the very fabric of the idea of a solidary Poland vision. Balancing both of these visions forms the basis for the decisions we make at the ballot box.
Regardless of our hopes for the future, the division is still there, and its connection to the outward forms of Polish religiosity is stable. Three decades after the fall of communism, Poland faces a dilemma that two American scholars once summarized as follows: ‘Can religion be a principal source of social integration in a modern, even post-modern, society characterized by multiculturalism and religious pluralism? Today, this question is no less relevant for the South than for the nation’ (White and White 1995: 9). All we have to do is to replace the word ‘South’ with ‘Poland’ and ‘nation’ with ‘Europe’.
Washington and Lee University
This essay is based on analyses presented earlier in:
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Jasiewicz, K. , ‘Kultura polityczna Polaków: między jednością a podziałem’ [The political culture of Poles: between unity and division] Aneks, no. 48/1987: 60–100.
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(full disclosure: articles by Radkiewicz, Stanley and Zarycki et al. appeared in the journal East European Politics and Societies, of which I am co-editor-in-chief)
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Zarycki, T., R. Smoczyński, T. Warczok (2017) ‘The Roots of Polish Culture-Centered Politics: Toward a Non–Purely Cultural Model of Cultural Domination in Central and Eastern Europe’ East European Politics & Societies and Cultures, nr 31/2.
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